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Wills 101: Your questions, GYST replies…How do I write a will?

How do I write a will? is one of the top 10 questions I hear from you in the hundreds and hundreds of emails (many still unanswered, sorry!) sitting in my inbox. So, here is a quick compilation of your most frequently asked ‘Wills’ questions, and a summarized mash-up of my responses. These are the very basics to get you started…now, GO!

Your questions:
I’m filling out your template, and I have a question: can I write one will for my husband and myself together?

How do I know if I need a Trust?.

Your sample will document refers multiple times to Washington State law, but what if you don’t live in Washington?

I’m wondering about laws governing wills, etc in various states.

I just wondered if there was a resource for other states with template-style documents like you have posted.

Legal Documents you need, in a nutshell:

A Will: A state-specific, legally binding ‘who-gets-what’ after you die from guardianship of children/pets to financial assets and your family heirlooms. Also, sometimes Trusts (more below).

Power of Attorney (POA): Legal specification of who is in charge of certain things like your executing your Will, Money, Medical choices, Guardianship, etc. Also, digital rights (more below).

Living Will: also called Advanced Directives, these are your end of life wishes, essentially where and how you prefer to die and clear instructions your Medical POA can follow if you cannot advocate for yourself.

How to get it done, the main three options I found:
1) Do it Yourself: GYST Recommends Willing
2) Online template or software: GYST Recommends LegalZoom
3) Hire a Lawyer: Search reviews in your state at Avvo

Where do you find these?
Word-of-mouth is often the best way to find a lawyer (get references). Also, resources and article links with tips to get it done are on the Wills page.

Can I just fill in the template on your site? Probably not a good idea, but it can be a helpful reference – the Will in the Templates section to download is one a lawyer drew up for me, specific to Washington State – I made it a more generic and posted as reference to see the language and the type of info you’ll need to complete yours. It is not intended to be a one-size-fits all doc.

Anything else?

Yes!, don’t feel like an asshole that you don’t have this done yet – over half of America is in the same boat. So, get over it and stop procrastinating and hand-wringing, and just. get. it. done. It only takes a few hours!!!

What’s a Power of Attorney, again?. Who you name as POA is important as they need to be trusted and capable of executing your Will. If you think you should name xxyyxx, but they actually suck at numbers or cave under a little stress, pick someone else. You can name many different people for different roles (Executive, Financial, Medical, Guardianship), and/or others for oversight. Also, name back-ups.

A newer addition to this legal rodeo is a Digital POA, this is important. Digital assets are not always protected by your State law and there isn’t anything yet Federally. So, it takes an extra, 3-minute step. It is crazy, but absolutely true that your online assets (email, shopping, photos, music library, etc.) are not treated the same as the lamp in your living room. So, avoid hassle and potentially losing this stuff by:

#1 – Write down passwords and account info to all your Digital accounts and let one or two people know how to get it.

#2 – Make sure you have a Digital POA specified as they’ll have better legal ownership rights, just in case. The GYST POA template has sample, lawyer-approved, language.

State Laws decide. Laws vary widely on how this stuff works, each State determines what is legally sound and binding, and how probate works. If you die without a will (called dying intestate) it is completely up to them what happens to your stuff/assets/house – often they start with a spouse, to dependents, to parents, etc… but, other complicating factors often arise; Epic family court battles? Loving memorial? You can decide.

Trusts are often set up and included in a Will as they are an additional measure to make probate faster/cheaper and get your assets more quickly into the hands of who you want to have them, again, they vary from state-by-state. For example, I have heard Washington State has a pretty uncomplicated process as compared to California. Always, do your research – these guys do a nice overview of Trusts.

How specific does a Living Will get? The more specific the better as the goal of this document is for you to tell us what you want – your Directives to us, in Advance. Saying, I don’t want to be a vegetable - is not Direct. You get to tell us what your line is so we can advocate for you, when you do not then we have to guess and wonder/worry if we did the right thing or realize too late the line was already long-ago crossed. Links and templates here.

What is the best way? It totally depends on your situation. Those of you who want to do it yourself, you are legally entitled to (and every lawyer will warn you not to). However, in any case – please do your research and make sure you understand the lay of the land, that your will is legally binding per the laws of your state. And, if you can afford a lawyer (make sure it is a good one) then why not, or, if you are able pay $50 or so for a basic will online and that is your budget, then awesome.

Good luck y’all – Onward and Upward!
- Chanel

ps – I am soooo not a lawyer, never played one on t.v. or even entertained the idea of going to law school. So, this is what I learned, and I hope it helps. But, that’s just what I think, it’s your life, so make the best choice for yourself! :)

  1. Nichole Stewart says:

    Thank you for writing this. Do I need a POA even if I have a complex will? My husband and I share one minor child.

    • Chanel says:

      If you have a complex will (a lawyer drew it up for you?) you likely have that information in there – who gets guardianship, who executes your will for you, medical power of attorney. I’ve seen POA and Wills as separate documents and sometimes they are the same one. If you haven’t seen your will in a while, or aren’t sure – it is a good idea to give it a review every year or so and make sure it is up to date – adn if not, make updates. Also see if a ‘digital’ power of attorney is included – it may not. good luck!

  2. Sheila Bartsch says:

    Chanel, thank you for putting this site together and making everything very clear. I’m grateful!

  3. Rudy Owens says:

    Great resource. Given how many Americans now also suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, having discussions with elderly family members about all of these documents is a smart thing to do, albeit not easy. These tools you shared can help. Thanks.

  4. Renee says:

    My brother and dad passed away within three weeks of each other. Both without wills, updated beneficiaries or living wills. It was a nightmare to take of–family fights over end of life decisions and multiple ex-wives still listed as beneficiaries. It was terribly expensive because I had to have two probates. Even the probates didn’t help deal with everything. Because I was not a named executor in a will, for instance, I couldn’t legally do anything with my brother’s house. What a terrible frustrating dragged out process! Finally this year, I told my mom that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was for her to do her will. She did it! What a relief! It’s the best gift I will get this year!

  5. shannonf says:

    Thanks to the GYST site I recently completed my last will and POA by using Legalzoom (super easy), and am planning to sign my will in front of a notary with my witnesses tomorrow.

    After that I don’t know what I need to do. I am unclear if I have to file/record the completed will with the state/county. Do I have to officially record it to make it valid or can I just make a few copies and keep them in safe places (like with my designated POA)? Would LOVE input on whether or not filing it with the state is necessary. Thanks!

  6. Ray Whittikar says:

    This has been such an emotional topic but one that definitely needs serious consideration before it’s too late. As a nursing care professional, I see a lot of families without a proper trust or will in place which causes a number of difficulties when an elderly loved one is unexpectedly no longer able to care for themselves. While researching on this topic (but most relevant to families who have elderly), I came across this very helpful article. Definitely worth a read: